Monday, 1 December 2014

Ferguson and the echo of American totalitarianism

It’s easy to understand why people in Ferguson or African-Americans in general would be upset, outraged, indignant and depressed all at once about the Michael Brown killing and the police/prosecutor cover-up that followed. But it’s counter-intuitive—or should be—that Officer Wilson’s defenders are just as passionate. Why this blind rush to justify what the guy did? Sympathy for the cops doesn’t fully explain it. What’s going on?

Whatever one makes of the piecemeal evidence available of the incident (since there now will be no trial to clarify it), it could hardly be controversial that teenagers should be guaranteed minimum safety while going about their business and not end up dead. What is it in our national psyche that drives a sector of the populace to rush to Fox News and cheer when any white cop guns down a black kid?

(By the way, anyone who doubts that this occurs should spend some time reading the comment section of any article or social media post on the Ferguson incident and the subsequent demonstrations over it.)

The buried history of American slavery provides an important piece of the answer, or would if we were allowed to make slavery an object of study. It is no accident that we are told so little as children and years linger so briefly during our student over the slavery phenomenon. After the peremptory and superficial required treatment, we never hear about slavery again unless we go digging or specialize in history. In some circles, it’s even considered bad taste or ‘too sensitive’ for fragile and unformed minds to handle.

I realized that many white southerners would rather glide quickly over talk of the bad old days when driving through the black residential areas of Hattiesburg, Missisippi, with a local woman a few years ago. She proudly pointed out the modest black churches where Martin Luther King had once spoken during the dangerous years of his political work in the Jim Crow South. I then asked, ‘Wasn’t Hattiesburg where one of the violent incidents of the Freedom Ride took place? Down at the bus terminal?’ She quickly replied, ‘We don’t talk about that.’ And she wasn’t joking.

There are a few former-slave narratives in existence, written by freedmen or women who managed to escape or were freed during the Civil War and acquired enough learning to record their hair-raising stories. Frederick Douglass’s and Harriet Tubman’s are well known, and now we are aware of Solomon Northup of 12 Years a Slave. But Steve McQueen could spend the rest of his filmmaking career on the accounts by Harriet Jacobs, William Wells Brown, Olaudah Equiano, Henry Bibb and others, some of which make Northup’s trials look fairly tame.

The slaves would go to some cabin at night for their dances; if one went without a pass, which often they did, they would be beaten severely. The slaves could hear the overseers, riding toward the cabin. Those, who had come without a pass, would take the boards up from the floor, get under the cabin floor, and stay there until the overseers had gone. -Mrs. Mittie Blakeley, Oxford, Missouri (Federal Writers Project, WPA, ‘Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United StatesInterviews with Former Slaves/Indiana Narratives’)

[We] Negroes were not allowed an education. It was dangerous for any person to be caught teaching a Negro, and several Negroes were put to death because they could read. -George Taylor Burns, Gregery’s Landing, Missouri

What emerges from these largely forgotten autobiographies are many illuminating details of the pervasive system of social control exercised over slaves and nonwhite freedmen in the antebellum period, a pervasive, homegrown, early Stasi for North America. For example, a simple trip from one plantation to another could turn complicated and physically dangerous if a slave was not able to convince any encountered (and armed) whites that he had permission to be on the road.

Open-carry laws and the entire obsession with gun rights make more sense when viewed in the light of this permanent state of white militarization, an acknowledgment that active control was required to maintain the slave state.

It’s also illuminating as to why supposedly ‘conservative’ Americans are just fine with the permanent snooper state created by the NSA phone-tappers: on some repressed, psychic level, white Americans deeply believe they need to know everything about the suspect portion of the population—they just think they themselves will never form part of it.

We’re familiar with some of the surviving elements of this system in the post-war era from key classics of literature such as To Kill a Mockingbird and from the eye-opening incidents of the Civil Rights period. The difference in the post-chattel slavery era is that when blacks were valuable property, it was costly to kill them. Once slave bodies ceased being possessable and exploitable for their labor-power, it was not. You read a lot about whippings and torture during the slave period, but it was only after the Emancipation that lynching flourished. Before 1865, killing a black, while sometimes deemed necessary or indulged in for sport, cost money. Afterward, it was free.

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